The OF Blog: International Blog Against Racism Week: July 27-August 2

Monday, July 27, 2009

International Blog Against Racism Week: July 27-August 2

This week is the annual International Blog Against Racism Week, where participants of all ethnic/racial backgrounds choose to share snippets from their experiences or their writing that deal with the pernicious issue of racism in global societies. During the course of this week, I hope to have at least a couple of posts that touch upon this issue, as it is one that affects me personally (being of mixed ethnic/racial descent, and having two cousins that are descendants of three ethnic/racial groups), professionally (the majority of the teens that I work with come from minority racial backgrounds), and which is touched upon in a great many of the readings I do for both pleasure and (mostly in the past) for research.

Sadly, the first issue that comes to mind is the recent blow-up involving K. Tempest Bradford and Harlan Ellison. The details of this may be found in this link, where the issue expanded from perceived sexism to ageism to racism at the argument's nadir. I was reminded yet once again how slippery of a slope jokes and mock-ups can be and how quickly one's heated outburst can lead to shameful comments, such as the one Ellison posted on his own messageboard last week.

The Carl Brandon Society this afternoon posted an open letter touching upon this spat before broadening it to an appeal for bloggers and others to refrain from using inflammatory words. Below are the main principles of the letter (for those who agree, I suggest clicking on the link above and signing your name to it):

These principles are as follows:

1) The use of racial slurs in public discourse is utterly unacceptable, whether as an insult, a provocation, or an attempt at humor. This includes both explicit use of slurs and referencing them via acronyms.

2) Any declaration of a marginalized identity in public is not a fit subject for mockery, contempt, or attack. Stating what, and who, you are is not “card playing.” It is a statement of pride. It is also a statement of fact that often must be made because it has bearing on discussions of race, gender, and social justice.

3) Expressing contempt for ongoing racial and gender discourse is unacceptable. Although particular discussions may become heated or unpleasant, discourse on racism and sexism is an essential part of antiracism and feminist activism and must be respected as such. There is no hard line between discourse and action in activism; contempt of the one too often leads to contempt of the whole.

The Carl Brandon Society assumes in this letter that everyone reading it shares the common goal of racial and gender equity, and general social justice, in all our communities. We hope for a quick end to arguments over whether or not unacceptable forms of debate should be allowable. These arguments obstruct the process of seeking justice for all.


The Carl Brandon Society

Any thoughts regarding IBARW or the incident mentioned above?


OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

Thanks for this post Larry, I didn't know about the themed week and the whole controversy. The issues in general though are something I have been thinking about quite a bit lately, especially with the nomination of Sotomayor to the supreme court, and her opinion and order related to the New Haven firefighters.

I read the synopsis of the controversy and am hesitant to comment without spending a fair amount of time reading all the links. In my opinion, no side is totally innocent in that little scrape, as is often the case.

Back to the firefighters for a second, something that amazed me is that I could not find any of the test questions online, nor even an analysis of what what was biased within the test. While the decision has sparked a lot of debate in the US, I find it amazing that most of it does not even rely on the facts of the incident (it could be that I am just terrible with google).

I generally agree with the statement that you reposted, although I think would some of the 'activists' mentioned in it might not. As the line between activism and discourse is thin, so to is that between freedom of speech and censorship. Endorsing a principle is the same as desiring that everyone should adhere to it.

The people who indulge in the use of sexist and racist epithets need to be allowed to do so, so that they themselves can be marginalized--not to mention the positive discussion that this can generate, thereby educating those who are ignorant in the subject matter.

I went to a very liberal school where both sexuality and race were hotly discussed topics, and the activists there would, in many instances, deliberately use extreme and controversial language so as to spark debate (a lot of this was done through chalking on walkways). While I cannot speak for everyone, I know that I benefited form that debate.

I think more important than the overt use of loaded terms are the subtleties of language that hide the very same biases--these are so much more insidious because they replicate and propagate bias without generating notice, and a free and open discourse is the only way to address them.

This is a longer comment that I am accustomed to posting and I apologize if I veered a bit off topic. I guess it was the tone of the letter which prompted me to react against it. I cannot shake the feeling that whoever wrote it is frustrated/angry and just wants to get past the issue -- after rereading it I think this feeling comes from the second to last sentence, which is highly conclusory.

Felix said...

"I could not find any of the test questions online, nor even an analysis of what what was biased within the test."

Apologies for going further OT, Larry, but:

There are copies of the test out there. They're not very illuminating. "Analysis of what was biased within the test" is really beside the point of Sotomayor's decision.*

What happened was that (almost?) no minority candidates were in fact passing the test. This statistical disparity could give rise to a "disparate impact" suit under Title VII.

The way a disparate impact suit works is: first the plaintiff must show that a particular practice has an actual statistical adverse impact on a minority. Then, the burden shifts to the employer to show that the test is both "job-related" and "consistent with business necessity". "Consistent with business necessity" requires a showing that there are no alternative equally effective ways of doing whatever it is that would have a less discriminatory impact.

The city looked at the test results, and determined that there was a disparate impact (clearly there was) and that they would not be able, if sued, to show that the particular way they structured the test was consistent with business necessity. The test the city used was one that weighted written questions much more heavily than oral questions, and had no out-in-the-field-hands-on practical section (or gave it very little weight; I forget which). The great majority of other jurisdictions use tests which rate the oral/practical sections as highly as or more highly than the oral section. The city decided that there was no way it could show that there was a "business necessity" to structure the test in the unusual way that it did, and that it would therefore face and lose a Title VII disparate impact suit unless it threw the results out and re-weighted the test.

(It would indeed be very difficult to explain why it was essential that a firefighter test be based on written multiple choice questions, and not at all on in-the-field evaluations of command presence and decision making)

The firefighters whose results had been thrown out then brought a suit under a "disparate treatment" theory -- i.e., a theory that the city intentionally discriminated against them because they were white.

The district court (the trial court, the lower court) ruled that the city could not have had a discriminatory intent, because it had a non-pretextual reason for throwing out the test -- i.e. it would have faced and lost a disparate impact suit if it hadn't. The court therefore gave summary judgment to the city -- i.e. threw the case out without a trial. (Most federal cases get resolved that way).

The Second Circuit panel of which Sotomayor was a member agreed with that reasoning.

So -- no one says that there was anything "biased" as such about the test. The questions are completely unobjectionable questions about water and firehoses and etc. The point is that as a matter of statistical fact minority candidates weren't passing the test, and that the city could have re-weighted the test to avoid that statistical impact, because other cities manage to do it.

* Sotomayor strictly speaking didn't write the decision. It was unsigned, "per curiam," by the three judges on the panel jointly. FWIW, I hear it was probably not Sotomayor who took the lead on it.

Felix said...

The Supreme Court's decision is sophistical bullshit and it makes me angry and I don't want to talk about it

Felix said...

and fuck Harlan Ellision, too

OnlyTheBestSciFi/Fantasy said...

Hey Felix, thanks for the awesome feedback on the firefighter's case. The 'disparate impact' issue puts it in perspective for me. It seems like New Haven was in a tight spot there, and regardless of what they did they would have gotten sued...

Briefly, if you don't mind, how does the same logic not apply to say, a military placement exam or any other standardized test out there... Please correct me if I am wrong, but as long as something has a disparate impact it is not necessary to prove that it is overtly discriminatory, only that the entity administering the test could, without unduly burdening itself, weight/structure the test differently so as to redress the disparity? I use the case of the armed forces placement exam since it seems that physical skills and leadership ability, in most cases, would take priority over written ones, as was the case with the firefighter's exam.

Felix said...

yep. And not just standardized tests, but any actions by covered employers (basically any employer with more than 15 employees).

And it does leave employers in a difficult position. One of the ironies of the case is that some generally very conservative business groups lined up in support of the Second Circuit's ruling, because they wanted a clear rule that an employer cannot be sued on a disparate-treatment theory as a result of actions taken to remedy a disparate impact.

Nephtis said...

I waded through some of the controversy on the blog, including the original conversation about the cover. It's stunning and deplorable how that conversation was twisted.

There were no accusations of sexism, on the contrary, KTB herself made a superficial and somewhat sexist remark, only directed at men - what I call "equal opportunity sexism" - and the Internet couldn't deal. The concept of objectifying men is so foreign and incomprehensible, that the masses automatically slipped into an old and comfortable discussion instead, their God-given right to objectify women, which then devolved into rants against women. Only one thing left to say about that: WTF

Only when race was brought in did people start to come to their senses. Goes to show you - sexism is more virulent than racism, and much more accepted. Ugly, shameful, all of this.

Paul said...

I have to echo Nephtis in saying it's astonishing how the original conversation got twisted around. Unlike Kynn in his/her summary you linked to, I feel Doug Cohen's reaction was fairly measured and not bad, though I agree Shweta's reply is a good one. The Brad Torgersen rant has some fairly offensive passages and seems rather contradictory, throwing in a whole lot of sexist ranting that doesn't seem to have much relevance. And then Harlan Ellison comes in and, well, it's hard to find what he exactly says, but the relevance to the original post seems to be essentially zero.

I'd be inclined to consider this incident, at least the uglier parts of it involving Ellison, more a lesson in how it's important to know the facts before commenting on something, and a lesson in how fast words or even whole discussions can get twisted around in the blogosphere, than any kind of lesson on issues of racism or sexism.

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